In and Out of Africa
Mud, Mud, I love Mud
By morning the inevitable storm had cleared the way for another beautiful day. As I lay facing out of the open doorway a large hawk of some kind alighted on a stump not two metres away. It perched for a moment as though curious about these strange creatures so far from home. As usual the camera was in its case out of reach, it probably had the wrong lens on it anyway. The hawk gave me a sly stare as if to say "Don't even think about reaching for the camera. It's too far away and you've got the wrong lens attached". It was almost as if it could read my mind.
The road ahead seems to be OK, although a little muddy as usual. We catch up with a native truck, overladen as usual. They politely pull over to let us pass. Again we feel as though Africa is our friend. Then the road gets rapidly worse. The muddy track enters a steep sided trench, the same width as a Mercedes truck, with deep ruts made by Mercedes truck tyres. I try and get one wheel onto the central crest. The walls are too steep and they push me back into the ruts with a thump. The lowest part of the axles (the differential gear casings) embed themselves in the muddy central crest. We cannot move either forwards or backwards. The day is starting to heat up and I get the spade out and start digging. The clay is thick and red, each spadeful harder than the last. After a few minutes the truck we passed caught up. They tow us out backwards and I try again. Enough of the side walls had been scraped away during the first attempt and we were lucky. After about ten more kilometres there was another hole, this time less than a metre deep but much more slippery. The wheels are slipping beneath me on the slippery wet clay, low gear and so slow, the end of the hole getting closer. The concentration is intense. This is not as easy as the road before Kisangani. Then the roads were much wetter and the clay was a thick layer of slimy mud. The axles could push away the central crest if need be. Now the sides and the centre were hard dry clay, yet the ruts were slimy and slippery. One pair of wheels would be slipping in a slimy rut, the other on the slippery surface of a hard unrelenting central crest. In Europe the Landrover had seemed such a huge and formidable vehicle, too tall for my brother's entrance way, unable to go under the underpasses in France. Now it was suffering from being the smallest thing on the road. These ruts had been made by real trucks with 20 inch wheels. If we got all four wheels in a rut we were well and truly stuck. I almost reached the other side when, blam, the wheels slipped into the other rut.
As always Fiona was on pothole spotting patrol, two pairs of eyes are always better than one. "Got that hole", she says. I could see a smallish dip in the road on her side. "Yes", I replied and carried on driving. Blam. We lurched forward and came to a resounding stop. The truck was pitched forward at an impossible angle and the rear wheel was in the air. With great care we got out. What had looked like a small dip to me, and a medium dip to Fiona was in fact a huge hole with no bottom. As we watched the water flowing below us we realised that this particular mud hole was in the bed of a bridge. We were on some loosely packed mud beyond the side of the bridge, held up by little more than will power. The locals I had been in such a hurry to drive away from walked up and sat down once again to watch the crazy tourists. "You should look were you go", they said smugly.
We had to at least make an attempt to get out of the hole. If we were going to be stuck here for weeks trying to get new axles and springs we should at least be on the flat. I got the winch out and started to look around for something to pull against. There was nothing in front of us at all. Even if there was it would not have been possible to pull us out that way. The front was well and truly down the hole. Behind us was a stand of bamboo with stalks several inches thick. It really didn't look strong enough to take the weight of the truck. I attached the winch to the rear crossbar. The locals looked puzzled as I connected the handle and started to winch. The winch had been a bit of a gamble. The macho electric winch of my dreams was a bit too expensive, especially as everyone knows that Landrovers don't get stuck. 800 GBP (over half our total equipment costs) for a winch we never used would have been a waste of money. Instead we bought a manual winch for 160 GBP. As I pulled the first strokes on the handle I couldn't decide which would give way first. The bamboo, the cable, the handle, the winch, the loop on the truck or my back. There was a lot of straining and groaning, mostly from me, but very little movement. Then, very slowly, the truck began to move. My arms and back were burning as the truck came out of the hole. It began to tilt and then the rear wheel came down with a crash, to the cheers of the locals. 'That will have finished it off', I thought.
Fiona started checking the truck over. At least the doors shut again. It looked square on its wheels. It was square on its wheels. I bounced the suspension and everything worked. Finally we could photograph the hole. As I clicked the shutter I could imagine the whole muddy bank slipping into the river. The winch I never expected to use or even work had done all that was expected of it and more. I was finally satisfied with that decision. The electric winch of my dreams, a symbol of masculinity prominent on the front bullbars, would have been so much scrap metal. We would still have been in the hole, the river flowing menacingly beneath, unable to escape.
Finally we were seeing the Zaire we had heard so much about. It wasn't long before we came across the longest, deepest and muddiest hole yet. Some other guys were already digging before attempting to drive their own truck through. I get in there and dig too, much to their surprise. The preparation pays off and we all get through safely. We pass a convenient looking campsite. It has been a hard day and we could do with the rest, Fiona is feeling very ill and can't do very much. There are still a good three hours before nightfall (at 18:30) and we've travelled less than 60 km so we decide to press on. Almost immediately we come to an even deeper hole. This time we stop and have a good look before driving in. This great rent in the road had sides over two metres deep, nearly as deep as the truck and taller than I am. I spot a trunk of wood embedded in the central crest. It may be a root or a branch which has fallen in. I try to move it. It is solid. It is hard to work in this heat and I am already over tired. If I'm careful we should get through here. I drive in, slowly and in control, just like they taught me in the controlled appalling conditions of the Landrover training course. There were no embedded trees in the sanitised jungles of Solihull, ground clearance was not a problem, the slippery poles were a nice safe angle and the mud was gloriously squishy, not sticky hard clay.
The tree hung up one of the diffs and we were now well and truly embedded. With two metre high walls I could barely get under the truck to dig the clay and then saw the damn tree in half. Fiona was now so sick that she was unable to do much more than make cups of tea and talk to the inevitable crowd of locals. While she sat, laid waste by stomach cramps, some local children came by. They touched her straight, light brown hair and rubbed her white skin, convinced there must be black skin beneath it. We may not have been the first white people they had seen but we were probably the first who they had been able to approach so closely. The missionaries we saw here were not cut from Angie's mould. They drove air conditioned Landrovers followed by a Landrover pickup (without air conditioning) full of locals to dig them out if they got stuck. This time it took two hours of back breaking work before we were free. We were both covered in mud from head to toe (Fiona, although sick, had been in there getting dirty too). By now it was an hour to dark and we started to look for a campsite. We spotted a perfect roadside scrape. It was wide and flat and not visible from the road. We pulled in and came to a stop. It was 16:45, we had been travelling since 08:00 and had covered a whole 70 km.
There was a crashing sound in the trees. Crash, crash. The sound of something huge and predatory. We had heard this sound before. This time it was closer. Crash, swish, crash. Closer still. There was movement in the trees, so close now. Then we saw it. A troop of monkeys running along the branches and leaping from tree (crash) to tree (swish, crash). The strange night sounds identified. A flock of black hornbills, like frigates of the air flew overhead and were gone before the camera could be found. Nature and the jungle was all around us. I spent the last hour of daylight, before the sun sets somewhere beyond the jungle canopy, taking photographs of jungle, monkeys, the two of us sitting muddy but happy in front of the muddy but happy truck.
If I was not yet part of Africa it was certainly part of me. My clothes, my boots, my every pore and those delicate little places cotton buds were designed for. All were packed full of Zaire mud. Even now, nearly two years later, I have 'T' shirts stained with Zaire mud. Modern washing powders make brave claims, yet I cannot find a single one up to the challenge of Zaire mud. My trousers could very nearly stand up on their own. We decided to take tomorrow off and sit around and explore the jungle and commune with the animals.
The morning brought dense tropical rain. This, we thought, was finally 'the rains' we had been warned about. All the animals and birds were sheltering and there are few things more miserable than sitting in a dark tent, with the door closed, in the pouring rain. If we were going to sit in the truck we might as well be driving. If these really are 'the rains' we could be in for a few more tough days. By tonight we expected to be at Epulu and the road was supposed to improve from there onwards. After only about an hour we came across a truck stuck in another hole. This one was also about two metres deep. The 'truck slaves' were busy digging them out and it looked like a difficult task. Each truck would have a 'driver' who did nothing but drive (and often not very well) a 'Patron', usually fat, he owned the truck and seemed to do nothing at all. I assume he did all the bargaining and bribing etc. necessary for African commerce. There would also be two indentured labourers, technically 'trainee drivers' but in reality they seemed like virtual slaves. They did all the digging and wallowing in the mud and never got a chance at the wheel. This truck looked seriously stuck. They were hoping another truck coming the other way would tow them out. They had been waiting here for four days already and no truck had appeared. It looked like we were in for a long wait. Then some of the locals pointed out a little track in the jungle going around the hole. Obviously some smaller trucks had used this recently to by-pass the road. This was good slippery mud, the kind of mud Landrovers love. It was no problem at all driving round, slipping and sliding, the old glint was back in my eye. Then came the drainage ditch. In an attempt to stop the rain filling the main hole as fast as they could dig and bail they had dug a deep trench, crossing my intended path. We tried the sand ladders we had inherited in Arlit from Jan and Trudy. So far all we had used these for was as a grating over a camp fire. When new the pierced steel planking could be used as a temporary bridge and could take the weight of a fully laden army truck. Rust and the years since World War II had not treated these particular ladders kindly. They buckled like foil under our weight. All the villagers thought this was most amusing but, with typical Zairois spirit, they all gave us a push over the ditch. They didn't seem to mind that we filled in their trench and covered some of them in mud. We decided to give them some cigarettes for their trouble and handed a packet to the nearest man. It quickly started disappearing into his shirt.
"Hey everybody", I shouted and did the international sign language for 'He's got the cigarettes'. The man turned. The packet was now in full view, as though it had been his intention to share them all along.
That had only been a short delay and we were back on the road again. For the next 5 km Epulu was still looking achievable. Then we reached 'It'. Our suspicions were first aroused by the medium sized truck parked on the side of the road, its occupants obviously settled down for a long wait. As we got closer we could see a larger Mercedes truck facing us. It was poised at the edge of...
The gaping abyss where the road used to be was 5 metres deep and nearly 80 metres long. The bottom was filled with more than knee deep watery mud. To put that in perspective, a standard Mack truck would be completely engulfed and you could jump down to the roof of the container from the sides. The truck at the edge was so heavily laden, and the hole so deep that they hadn't even attempted to drive through. Behind them were 11 more trucks also waiting to drive through. The truck slaves from the first truck were desperately digging and trying to empty the water from the hole using buckets and a trench they had dug around the hole. The water was flowing along the trench and then seeping into the hole again through a layer of porous shale at the other end. The dense jungle was tight against the sheer 5 metre drop into the mud below. The path between the jungle and the hole was narrow and slippery making a walk to the other side of the hole an adventure in itself.
The truck on the lip of the hole was hoping that a truck coming our way would be able to tow them through. They had been waiting for four days. It looked like we were in for a long wait, stuck between two sets of trucks stuck in holes, each waiting for a truck to come the other way to tow them out. It was like a little mobile village here and each truck had its cooking fire and little seats. Many of the trucks had a couple of women travelling with them to do the cooking and other domestic chores. Quite a little home from home and everyone was friendly and talkative. We were so close to East Africa now that a lot of the people spoke at least some English. With a little international sign language thrown in we could communicate pretty well.
There seems to be an idea amongst Africans in general that European travellers carry nothing but ball point pens, medical supplies and exotic foods. They even think this is the case with backpackers! We had 500 pens, exotic foods (freeze dried vacuum sealed beef burgers count as exotic here) and medical supplies and therefore did very little to dispel this rumour. This explains why the roads are lined with little children making writing motions in the air and shouting 'donnez-moi Bic' in French, showing the power of brand loyalty even in Africa. This also means that whenever we stop there is a good chance that the wounded from miles around will miraculously appear for medical treatment. This stop was no exception. One of the truck slaves had cut his head open with a pick axe. Fortunately his wounds weren't too deep and they had already shaved his hair around the wound and cleaned it fairly well. Fiona put on a pair of surgical gloves and began cleaning the wound. "Why you wear the gloves?", one of the men asked. Fiona paused for a second and then lied. "Er, because my hands are dirty and I don't want to get more dirt in the wounds". Of course she wasn't worried about that at all. The gloves were a precaution against AIDS. Before we left England, in fact the weekend we arrived, a car had driven into my parents fence line. Not an unusual event on that corner. Fiona had gone out to help and did some first aid on the driver of the car. When the ambulance arrived we noticed that they put gloves on before touching the driver. AIDS originated in Africa and if this is standard practise in Europe...? At that moment the risk of AIDS became real and surgical gloves were put to the top of our equipment list.
Fiona was using a very strong solution of antiseptic and the man didn't wince as the chemicals touched his wound. Pain seems to be a different order of magnitude for Africans. Then she brought out the aerosol disinfectant and proceeded to spray the back of the mans head. Everyone was laughing at the orange patch, bright against the dark skin. The poor man couldn't see what the others were laughing at so she sprayed some on her hand and he laughed too. After his wounds were dealt with the driver had a small cut on his foot which needed cleaning and a sticking plaster. He was more concerned about this small wound than the other guy was about a deeper gash on his head!
The enforced waiting was frustrating and I had to do something. I got the spade, wandered into the hole and started digging at the crest, hoping to increase my chances of ever getting through. "Why do you dig?". The Africans kept asking incredulously. In their eyes I was the 'patron' of my own vehicle. A rich man indeed and a white man as well. They couldn't understand why someone of my apparent status would get in there in the mud and dig. They also thought that my efforts were futile. They were undoubtedly right, yet I had to do something to ease my own frustration. I finally tired of this and went back to the truck where Fiona was drinking some beer with the guys from the medium sized truck on our side of 'the hole'. Their cargo was locally made beer and sodas and they had offered Fiona a drink in return for tending their wounds and out of general friendliness. They offered me a beer or a Soda. I thought for a moment about drinking and driving and that it was midday. There was a momentary vision of sealed roads, orange neon, blue flashing lights and breath alcohol tests. I looked at the muddy strip that passed for a highway and thought of the hole I may have to drive through soon and imagined a drunken slither into oblivion and panel damage. Even though it may be days before the other trucks arrive I was going to ask for a soda. "Take the beer", Fiona said.
At 17:30 the two trucks which had been stuck behind us arrived. The truck slaves and the villagers had managed to get them unstuck. They started to make preparations for towing the truck through the hole towards us. Even though these were both big powerful trucks it will still need both of them towing in tandem to pull it through.
It is fully dark by the time they finish their preparations and begin to tow. There is much revving of engines and shouting and men running everywhere. It is difficult to see what is happening as dark mud encrusted bodies run around occasionally silhouetted against the bright headlights. The truck being towed is now out of sight in the depths of 'the hole'. The towing trucks keep slipping into the ditch at the road edge, it is hopeless, the truck is far too overloaded for this journey. All the trucks are overloaded even though everyone knows the journey would be easier with a lighter load. "His load heavy, so ours must be heavy too". This is the African view of competition. A heavier load just takes a little longer to get through. If this means the road will be in a worse condition next time then that is a problem for next time not this time.
The 'truck slaves' on the towing trucks were already working when we passed them at 09:30 this morning and they are still hard at work. After two hours we are told they have decided to wait till 06:00 tomorrow morning so we go to sleep in the back of the truck. At 21:00 there is much revving and shouting and flashing of lights outside. They had decided to try again. This time they made it. Now they start to move the trucks through one by one, each truck towed through by the two in front of it. The only way we can get to be a part of this procession is by attaching to the back of the beer and soda truck when it is pulled through.
They drive to the edge, poised over the abyss. I am behind them, attached by the winch cable. This feels like a bad day at Disneyland. Hours queuing for the ride and suddenly you are strapped in place at the start of the ultimate rollercoaster ride. The tension and adrenalin build up is the same. The risks here are very much more real. At Disneyland there are signs before the rides saying "Before you can go on this ride you must be taller than this line". There was no such sign here and if there had been the line would be about a metre taller than our truck. We were playing with the big boys now and way out of our league.
The beer truck slid into the hole and I moved up to the edge. It was like the moments poise at the top of the Disneyland log flume as I held there looking down at the top of the beer truck below me. The cable snapped taut with a bang and pulled me down into the chasm. The headlights reflecting off the muddy water cast wild shadows on the walls above me. My mind barely making sense of the information it is receiving. The engine is still running. "The water it is acid, very very bad for engines", they shouted at the edge of 'the hole'. I could believe it. I feel suddenly grateful for the raised air intake, a galvanised zinc pipe which had frozen my fingers to the bone when I fitted it so long ago in that English winter. The beer truck crawls up the ramp ahead and hovers at the lip of the hole, half in half out. I can hear random shouting and a dull crunch in the distance. One of the towing trucks is in the ditch. As I wait in 'the hole' unable to move I pray that the cable holding the truck ahead doesn't snap. Time is no longer following any normal rules and after an interminable wait which seems to have lasted seconds and hours the beer truck moves over the lip and onto the road ahead. I am now on the exit ramp. I think back to the Landrover course and the 52 degree concrete slope and the angle feels about the same. I'm still only half way out when they stop. I don't know what is happening. In the distance I can hear shouting. "Landrover, Landrover". I realise that no one has told the trucks doing the tandem towing that a tiny little Landrover is tagged onto the end. I imagine sliding back into the chasm because someone has undone the winch cable. I desperately try driving out. After all I got up a similar gradient in Solihull. The wheels spun convincingly and I stayed exactly where I was. The angle might be the same but the slope in Solihull wasn't made of clay and didn't have a minor river flowing down it. Movement once again and the truck and I were safe on solid ground once more, although I think my stomach was still at the bottom of 'the hole'. There was no time for rest, we had to disconnect the truck and get out of the way so the other people could have their turn. For me this was a rare and unusual experience. It was everyday life for the truck people. They will still be driving through holes like this while I am retelling the story of this one hole to disbelieving friends and family in warm dry living rooms. "Yuk Grandad, 20 metres deep! Tell me about that crocodile in the mud again". For these people it was everyday life. On another stretch of road I looked disbelievingly at the lack of wood on the bridge over the Ituri. The man shrugged his shoulders and said. "This is Africa". His statement was one of explanation and resignation rolled into on. They are powerless to change this life and accept it with this peculiarly African form of fatalism. All this in a country which should be paradise. The fertile jungle was capable of producing food for millions yet there had been some days when we couldn't buy food. 90% of the worlds cobalt, essential to western industry comes from Africa, the bulk of that from Zaire. This should be one of the worlds richest nations, the Saudi Arabia of continental Africa. Instead the people are the poorest in the world and the national debt is one of the largest of any African nation. Where is the money going? Into the corrupt pockets of a corrupt government, placed there by representatives of Western industrial concerns to ensure continuing cheap mineral supplies. Certainly non of the benefits of the economic potential of this country gets to the people. The most repressive colonial regime in Africa was replaced by the most repressive and corrupt dictatorship and yet the people in this country number among the friendliest people I have ever met.
As we drove slowly past the waiting vehicles going the other way we see one of the truck slaves from this morning walk past. It was now 22:00, he had probably been digging since dawn this morning at 06:30. His shirt was really only a few threads bound together by mud rather than cotton. Fiona and I looked at each other and a thought passed between us. My shirt may have been encrusted with mud and sweat from the last few day but it was still one piece of cloth. I took it off but he was gone. Fiona took it from me and wandered off to find him. When she handed him the filthy rag I had been wearing moments before he was overwhelmed with gratitude. This was probably the first time anyone had given him a gift out of the blue. He kissed Fiona and was gone. We drove past and waved at each other, he looked different with a shirt on his back and I felt different with my shirt on his back and no shirt on my own. For me, seeing his smile of amazement as he realised that this was literally the shirt off my back, was worth more than any amount of old clothes thrown into charity bins at home.
We now have the problem of finding a place to stop in the full dark of a jungle at night. There is a likely looking spot, which turns out to be a cemetery. We didn't expect to be treated well by the locals if we spent the night there so we turned back into the road. One of the other trucks drove past us and we followed for a while. Then we saw them drive into a shallow, muddy hole. "Oh shit, I hope they don't...". 22:30 at night and they are stuck in another hole. This time it only takes an hour for them to dig out. We drove straight through and eventually came to a bridge with (thankfully) plenty of planks on it just before the village of Nia Nia. On the other side was a large road scrape and pull in thoroughly exhausted. We have been on the road for just over two months. It is the night of Sunday May the 26th, the end of probably the longest weekend of my life, a weekend in which we have travelled less than 85 km.
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